If have been on this site, a little less than a year ago I had a post that focused on some portable bags designed for DJ mixer/midi controllers and included a brief comparison of a few models that were fresh on the market.
I will stress again that every DJ, whether amateur or pro, should consider using the 2 leading software programs that are most suited for today’s technological standards: Serato Itch, and my favorite of choice, Traktor Pro. Now, there are a handful of companies that offer their own integrated software, but they do NOT stack up in terms of software reliability and features. I will also give a much deserved honorable mention to Ableton Live, which is really a production based software, but has surfaced in many DJ setups on a lot of floors.
For a brief 101 on usb/midi controllers, you need 3 things: (1) a laptop or computer; (2) DJ software that will make you the star and keep all your music together; and (3) a mixer controller, usb powered.
First, a review of some key features to look for and what they mean:
Key Feature: Independent channel LED strips
You want to be able to navigate wisely and see which channels are on while you mix. Very important role during a live performance. It also reduces error.
Key Feature: XLR outs
XLR is a type of cable that is very reliable in the professional arena. The big plus in this type of cable is not just the balanced signal quality, but its reliability in assuring a solid tight connection to your source, and it is very very tough to accidentally remove, unless there’s foul play in the DJ booth!
Key Feature: Independent Gain Control
You need to have control over your signal level for each independent channel. When mixing in the digital age, you may encounter a file that is recorded at a lower volume, so you need that added extra headroom and the option of matching levels or your performance will suck badly.
Key Feature: Digital Ins & Outs (Spdif or Aes/EBU)
It is a technological advantage in this age to work in digital. It is tough to explain to beginners, but it generally involves a lot less hassle if you are going to record straight into your computer or in the process of converting audio files when copying, and it won’t encounter the problems associated with analog signals like hum and ground noises. And, it is much easier to manage as a fixed signal.
Key Feature: Mobility and/or portability
We have evolved folks! Why break your back? One of the reasons digital DJing is taking over is mainly the need to not worry about lugging around hundreds of CD’s and players like CDJs or turntables. The controller is a hybrid of 2 turntables and a mixer. Yes- all in one. So, now you get it!!!
SO LET”S BEGIN!!!!
So here is my top ten list of the best choices currently on the market:
10th PLACE: Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S2
Software platform: Traktor Pro 2 (bundled)
Pros: Built well; bundled with Traktor Pro; superb controls; Traktor plug and play; light; very easy to move around on the go;
Cons: No dedicated filter knobs; still- no XLR outs; no digital outs; too expensive compared to the Kontrol S4; can only control 2 decks; 4 cue points; limited functions and controls for the asking price; not a big step up for Native Instruments
9th PLACE: Numark NS6
Software platform: Optional; Serato Itch (bundled)
Pros: XLR outs, built very well; strip search slider; nice spacial layout for pros & beginners; great for DJ’s that are crossing over and afraid of digital; awesome vinyl simulation control
Cons: Buttons a little too soft and sticky; no independent LED channel strips; cue points too close to jog wheels; loop controls under par; your laptop will fight it for space on the table; too big and too heavy for mobile use; not Traktor friendly; also needs a reliable case or coffin, or else you will have technical issues on the road!
Comments: Not the choice for a promising controllerist!
8th PLACE Novation Twitch
Software platform: Serato Itch (bundled)
Pros: One word: GAMECHANGER; Excellent price; more of a performance controller than a mixer; touch strip makes it a blast at parties; has easy-to-use 4 performance modes; mic in; on site beat grid adjust; touchstrip is a game changer for cuing up; 8 cue points on touch pads; dedicated channel LED strips; excellent use of space for features!
Cons: not a traditional DJ controller; no jog wheels for scratching; 4 deck control very tough to follow; browse control on the right can be a bit confusing; May be too advanced for novices; needs better knobs; no XLR outs; more for controlling a track rather than mixing
Comments: Can be a wet dream for controllerists! I personally love this unit!
7th PLACE: Reloop Jockey 3
Software platform: Traktor LE (bundled)
Pros: Great size for portability; designed for startup DJ’s; excellent build; signature Reloop browser knob; cue-mix fader; simple layout; four cue points; dedicated filter knob; can control up to 4 decks; booth output added
Cons: loop buttons can be a little confusing; scratch response a little under par; master volume control next to gain control may cause problems when recording; no independent LED channel strips; 4 deck mixing may be hard to follow; slightly overpriced
Comments: Reloop- it’s about time!
6th PLACE: Denon mc-3000
Software platform: Optional, but Traktor friendly; Virtual DJ LE (bundled)
Pros: Traktor mapping plug and play; digital out (awesome!); computer crash-proof stand alone mixer; mic input; 4 channels; solid build quality makes it a steel tank; portable size; colorful lit buttons; excellent jog wheels for the size; channel strip LED option; controls up to 4 decks
Cons: too damn cramped on controls; no XLR outs; loop control function poorly designed; no booth out- DENON got rid of it?; a bit too small for working DJ’s;
5th PLACE Numark N-4
Software platform: Serato Itch (bundled)
Pros: Great build quality; XLR outs; colorful channel layout; dedicated booth out; Serato Itch bundled makes it a bang for the buck at a $499 street price; great for startup DJ’s
Cons: No dedicated LED channel strips; jogs wheels take up too much real estate; cross fade assignment buttons can be accidentally triggered; too many settings on the underside may be prone to breakage; slightly cramped; pitch control placed too high;
Comment: Great price if you are on a budget!
4th PLACE: Pioneer DDJ- ERGO-V
Software platform: optional; Pioneer Virtual DJ LE (bundled)
Pros: Excellent layout; brilliant lights; moderate quality jog wheels; modest price and bang for the buck; optional angled design; can do up to 4 decks; my choice for startup DJ’s
Cons: Build quality not recommended for mobile transport; very limited output options; no channel strip LED meters; 4 deck mixing can be a bit confusing to follow; no dedicated filter knob; no mic input
Comment: When all the smoke clears, you cannot beat it for the price!
3rd PLACE: Pioneer CDJ-2000 (two) and DJM-2000 mixer
Software platform: Optional
Pros: Still a powerful club standard for many high-profile gigs and used by many DJ’s; has the best signature jog-wheel on the market; stand alone CD and DVD controller system (computer crash-proof); quality build controllers; USB flash drive friendly for file storage and linking; integrated software system that is not computer or laptop dependent; excellent button layout; 6″ beautiful LCD display; easy to troubleshoot technical problems due its 3 piece system design.
Cons: NOT a traditional USB/Midi controller; way too expensive (over $5000); not easy to carry around for portability; too heavy for functionality; no plug n’ play mappings; lacks some desired controllist features; button layout a bit archaic compared to newly designed models; mixer is a bit oversaturated on settings; Pioneer mixer faders and pots are not the most premium in my book for the huge asking price.
Comment: Good luck if you can afford it, but be prepared to lose if you want to battle!
2nd PLACE: Vestax VCI-400 Ean Golden Edition (to be released)
Software platform: Optional
Pros: Excellent design and quality build; DJ Tech Tools certified and co-designed with DJ Tech Tools mappings; XLR outs, LED meters on each channel strip; 4 loop buttons (a first); instant recording feature; colorful lights on pads; light and portable
Cons: Too expensive; low visibility on control labeling; Vestax metal knobs have a bad rap on lifespan; button layout just a little too cramped and a little too complicated for mid-level controllerists; no digital outs
Comments: Will be popular with a lot of folks and rises to the top of the heap like a bullet. Be prepared to slay the competition!
1st PLACE: Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 (WINNING!)
Software platform: Traktor Pro 2 (bundled)
Pros: Still the best choice for Traktor users; plug and play and flawless integration with software; layout set the standard for many newer models on the market; excellent quality on the jog wheels; overall quality of parts; independent LED channel strips; excellent custom mapping integration; smooth flawless design on ergonomics
Cons: no XLR ins or outs; could have added some colored knobs for improved navigation; no digital outs (SPDIF or AES/EBU) ; could have crammed in more cue point pads; no mic in;
Comments: Still the mother of DJ controller innovation.
Conclusion: There are more and more controllers to come, but I hope this top ten guide will help those who need to have a better understanding of what to look for in choosing the right piece of gear, and get your bearings straight if you are in the process of buying. Budget is very important, so why spend the money if you really don’t need certain features that don’t appeal to your needs. There are some ground level controllers on the market that start as low as $299 & up, but when dealing with Traktor and Serato, the software giants, it is important to be up-to-standard with what these programs have to offer. So why get stuck with a toy if you can get a decent piece of gear for a couple of hundred dollars more… Your audience will take you more seriously- even if it’s your pet cat in the bedroom.
Also, there are other controllers that may be ranked high by many other users that did not make it to my top ten, but I assure you that there are relevant reasons that involve price and quality.
Another serious question to ask yourself before you purchase a controller is whether you want to be a DJ or a controllerist -or a combination of BOTH! A DJ can a bit of both, but is mainly a play and get paid type of mentality as opposed to the controllerist persona, who is more interested in changing the structure of each track by altering its sound and arrangement in an elevated artistic sense. If you are the latter, you have the mentality of a producer, so you may want to choose a controller that either gives you the best of both worlds or can focus more on the technical aspects of achieving a higher level of controllerism. This top ten is more suited for the DJ than the controllerist, but I do believe that the controlleriist mentality is the new face of DJing.
So, as they say, choose your weapons wisely.
Thanks for reading!